Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

Politics from below

Picture of Prabowo on a car - Vembri Waluyas
Published: Jan 13, 2015

Street vendors have organised successfully at the local level, but effective national organisation has proved more elusive

Sheri Gibbings, Elan Lazuardi, and Khidir Marsanto

There are approximately 20 million street vendors in Indonesia. Historically they have been a vulnerable and marginalised segment of the population, unwanted and threatened by government and public alike. Increasingly, however, street vendors are becoming a powerful political force. Due to their great numbers, they have the potential to band together in support of a particular political candidate, which gives politicians an incentive to support their cause.

Nation and region

In January 1993, KPPKLY (Yogyakarta Street Vendor Community Cooperative) invited street vendor representatives from all over Indonesia to its first National Convention. That occasion saw the founding of APKLI (Association of Indonesian Street Vendors), made up of a number of local organisations from different parts of Indonesia. APKLI established a central board responsible for developing a working program based on policy initiatives developed at the association’s national conventions, as well as local councils at the provincial, city and district level. Each were responsible for developing a working program based on local issues, but all decisions were to accord with the program and policies of the national organisation.. At the time, APKLI DIY (APKLI Special Region of Yogyakarta) was the only Regional Council in existence, and for some years its activities were limited. Street vendors were a mixed group in Yogyakarta. Bringing them together was no easy task. Some traders even suspected that APKLI had been created by and for the government.

In 2011, APKLI DIY elected a new leader, with hopes that he would reinvigorate the organisation. Basri, the new head, had a long history of working for local non-government organisations. He had helped to organise the informal sector on Yogyakarta’s iconic main street, Jalan Malioboro. He was head of the PKM (Malioboro Organisation) and a special member of staff for the Regional People’s Representative Council (DPRD). Under Basri’s leadership, APKLI groups were soon active throughout the Yogyakarta region, often receiving financial support from the provincial government. As the coordinating body, APKLI DIY provided an opportunity for traders from different parts of the region to communicate, to seek government support for their initiatives, and to draw on the advice of a leader with connections and knowledge at the provincial level.

In 2012, with support for APKLI growing both among street traders and at the national level, the central government made a bold move. It acknowledged APKLI’s twentieth anniversary and named President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono the ‘Father of Street Vendors’. This increased APKLI’s popularity among traders, and local groups started forming across the archipelago. State recognition has also brought significant change for street vendors in general. In 2012, a presidential regulation on street vendors was issued. The Ministry of Home Affairs also issued a ministerial regulation specifically on the ordering and empowerment of street vendors. This recognition by the central government generated even greater interest. By 2013, APKLI was active in 24 provinces and 164 cities and districts. Soon there was talk of how APKLI might approach the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections.

Promising votes

At a meeting in late April 2014, the national body of APKLI and its leader, Ali Mahsun, made a decision to support the Prabowo-Hatta team in the 2014 presidential election. The group said it wanted to support Hatta Rajasa in particular, because as Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs during President SBY’s second term of office, he had helped to pass the Presidential Regulation on the ‘Ordering and Empowerment’ of street traders. As the national newspaper Kompas noted, Hatta was also on the APKLI Board of Trustees, and was a known defender of street vendor rights. APKLI announced in the newspapers that it had promised to deliver around 20 million votes for Prabowo-Hatta in the upcoming election.

Nevertheless, this decision disguised some dissent from within the national body itself. Heru J Juwono, the leader of APKLI’s Central Board, declared that groups supporting a particular presidential candidate should not use the APKLI name in their campaigns. He warned that traders should be cautious about expecting personal benefit from their support for any presidential candidate. He also declared that APKLI national body leader Ali Mahsun, was not in fact the general leader of APKLI, as he had claimed. On 12 June, the newspaper Berita Satu declared that some members of APKLI had even reported Ali Mahsun to the police. Clearly, the national leadership was divided, and the APKLI campaign in support of Prabowo-Hatta faced internal problems.

Despite the dissent and the accusations against him, Ali Mahsun continued to mobilise different APKLI groups across the country. He maintained that 20 million street vendors would vote for Prabowo-Hatta. Kompas reported that in Semarang, Central Java, Ali Mahsun was present when 300 leaders of street vendor organisations across the city declared their support for Prabowo-Hatta. In Yogyakarta, APKLI DIY gave its official support to Prabowo-Hatta at an event known as the ‘cart declaration’. As reported by Radar Jogja, Basri suggested that APKLI was in a position to influence as many as 80,000 voters in the district. He declared that the organisation would campaign stall by stall in support of Prabowo-Hatta.

Local resistance, local loyalties

Public declarations promising universal APKLI support for a particular political candidate, whether at the national or local level, did not always translate well on the ground. While at the national level APKLI had declared support for Prabowo-Hatta, the central body eventually agreed to let the organisation’s branches and sub-branches vote for the candidates of their own choice.

Local loyalties often influenced these decisions. In the Bantul district of DIY, the popular former district head, Idham Samawi, was both a member of the Board of Trustees of APKLI in Bantul and a loyal supporter of PDIP (the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) political party. Eventually, APKLI Bantul openly declared its support for the Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla (JK) presidential ticket, and implicitly asked all of its members to vote for Jokowi. Sub-branch level meetings were monitored, and 170 Jokowi t-shirts were distributed to traders. A banner appeared, declaring that APKLI Bantul supported Jokowi. Other APKLI branches in DIY faced similar situations, with influential leaders among local street vendors supporting rival candidates of those endorsed by APKLI National. Some believed that APKLI should have remained politically neutral. Many resented the national body’s failure to consult and coordinate with local levels before declaring their support for Prabowo-Hatta.

If APKLI National had little influence over the political choices of its members, it had even less impact on the views of traders who did not belong to the organisation. Dulah and Sukir, for example, are traders who travel from their village in the Gunungkidul district, when rice farming schedules permit, and trade their goods on Jalan Kaliurang, in the north of Yogyakarta City. Despite knowing about the existence of a street trader association in Yogyakarta, they said they were not inclined to join, because taking part in organisational activities would be too time-consuming, and involve too much travel. They decided to vote for Prabowo-Hatta in the election, not because of APKLI National’s decision but because their village was a ‘Prabowo stronghold’. Many of their fellow villagers looked back on the Suharto era with gratitude for its development projects, which had brought electricity, rainwater tanks and plumbing to their village. They saw Prabowo as a link to those times. ‘With Suharto gone, the water has gone too,’ said Sukir bitterly.

Siti, who runs a food stall near Lempuyangan station in Yogyakarta, also derived her political loyalties from her neighbourhood community, rather than any street vendor association. She and her husband, who helps run her stall, were aware that their community largely supported the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) and voted for Prabowo. But she had no interest in APKLI’s declaration of support for either candidate, either at the national or local level.

Limited power

Street vendors on Jalan Malioboro - Elan LazuardiStreet vendors on Jalan Malioboro - Elan LazuardiLeaders of APKLI at the national, provincial and local levels see street vendors as a potentially powerful group that could use their voting power to further their rights and interests. Political contracts or bargains between leaders and street vendor organisations at the local and provincial level are increasingly common. A growing number of intermediaries are also helping to facilitate these relationships. Recently elected mayors in Yogyakarta City, for instance, have placed street vendor leaders or their patrons (such as lawyers or NGOs that support the trader organisations) on their ‘success team’, and have fostered close relationships with street vendor organisations. This strategy has paid off for many of the more powerful trader organisations: they feel more secure in their legality.

In the run-up to the 2014 presidential election, however, there were hopes and political daydreams among some of APKLI’s national elite. They imagined that traders could be persuaded to abandon their local loyalties and become part of a unified force of 20 million votes. In many ways, these elites over-estimated their power and their ability to mobilise the traders. As developments in the Yogyakarta region showed, the loyalties of branch organisations and individuals were not so easily transformed, since the traders were already deeply entangled in patronage relationships with municipal and provincial leaders. These actors were, after all, responsible for making the regulations that would have the greatest impact on the traders’ immediate future. Moreover, not all traders are interested in being involved with trader organisations. These individuals were more concerned about aligning themselves with their local communities.

Traders are aware that voting today is different from what it was during the New Order period. They have multiple and competing candidates and are sensitive to the way negotiations between potential patrons can affect their interests. Elections present them with choices that they adjust to their immediate experiences and needs.

Sheri Gibbings (sgibbings@wlu.ca) is an anthropologist and Assistant Professor in Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada.

Elan Lazuardi (elan.lazuardi@ugm.ac.id) is an anthropologist who works as a part time researcher at the Center for Tropical Medicine and the Department of Anthropology at Universitas Gadjah Mada.

Khidir Marsanto (marsanto.iid@gmail.com) is a researcher, and a teaching assistant in the History of Anthropological Theory at Universitas Gadjah Mada.


This article is also available to read in French in AlterAsia.

Inside Indonesia 119: Jan-Mar 2015{jcomments on}


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